Wild Geese: ‘In the US, there is the feeling that opportunity is always there’

Irish designer Petria Lenehan moved to New York where she has built a new business

Irish designer Petria Lenehan says that her affiliation to Ireland and her use of Irish fabrics translates well to the US market

Petria Lenehan is probably best known as the former proprietor of Dolls boutique, which closed its doors in Dublin in 2013. Lenehan has since built a new business in the United States utilising Irish and British fabrics to design garments that are manufactured in Queens in New York.

“The shop was great but, when the recession hit, it had a huge effect and it took all the joy out of it. I couldn’t see being able to do the kind of retail I wanted to do in Ireland for a few years,” says the designer.

Lenehan's husband is acclaimed photographer Rich Gilligan. During the downturn, Gilligan had plenty of employment in Ireland but the couple had creative itchy feet. Despite having just had a baby, they decided to try to obtain a visa for the United States.

“We felt it would be harder if we [had] built up a support system, started thinking about schools and so on; we felt it was the right time to try to organise things,” she says of the decision to move. The couple relocated to the US when their daughter was 15 months old and have now been living there for three years.



There is “no such thing as a closed mentality” among the people they’ve encountered stateside, Lenehan says. “There are a lot of opportunities here and people are very open to you. If you are willing to meet people, to work hard and you have good work behind you, people are welcoming,” she says.

Gilligan had been granted a permanent residence card or green card, having obtained a masters degree and having had a book published but Lenehan warns others that the visa process is a huge amount of work without any real guarantee of success.

“You are basically putting together a huge portfolio of work and of references, celebrity endorsements… anything that will help your case. It was a long process with no guarantee. You need to really want it in order to enter into that process.”

The couple lived in Brooklyn for two years before moving to the Hudson Valley. "We live in the countryside but can easily go into the city for the day. We loved the city but wanted a totally different experience if we were going to make that move," she says. "There has been a big movement from Brooklyn in the past 10 years to this area so there's a great community here."

Lenehan and family live on the edge of town, a five-minute walk from the river and woods, but also close to Storm King Art Center and Beacon – home of the Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries which houses one of the largest contemporary art collections in America. “There are a lot of creative people living around who have opened shops, galleries and restaurants so there is lots of stuff going on,” she says.

She had begun designing clothing when she had her boutique in Dublin, but has developed the idea still further since arriving in the US. Her eponymous brand rails against fast fashion and she designs an “ever-growing collection of womenswear”. She introduces new designs regularly but does not work to the fashion calendar.

Fabric fairs

She is known particularly for her coats made in Donegal Tweed, and for her linen dresses, and she endeavours to use Irish fabrics where possible.

“I started making things when I had the shop in Dublin and visited the fabric fairs in Paris. It was overwhelming and led me to think about what I had on my own doorstep. In some ways, it was a practical decision to use Irish fabrics – Irish companies were easier to work with – but I then realised the quality of what we have in Ireland.”

Lenehan says that her affiliation to Ireland and her use of Irish fabrics translates well to the US market. “People love the quality and the story and are willing to pay for it.”

She says that her American customers cannot believe that the fabric is still made in Donegal to this day. “The Japanese also appreciate it a great deal and I wanted to support the industry as much as I could and to bring it outside of Ireland.”

Initially, Lenehan was making garments in Ireland but, with fewer people manufacturing clothing here, and the problem of proximity, she had to move production to New York. She found a small business in Queens that has been manufacturing for more than 40 years and was willing to take on her fashion label.

“It’s just wonderful to be so close to the production. They’re always on the phone and it’s just over an hour away. Even though there is now only a small industry here, the industry is still alive. With more independent designers and the use of social media tools such as Instagram to market their product, there is still an industry – even a small rebirth – for manufacturing here,” she says of the New York clothing production industry.

The sense of freedom and opportunity is what she loves most about living in the US.

“There is the feeling that the opportunity is always there. There are things about American culture that are unappealing perhaps and we are politically aware, but, at the same time, we just get on with our own lives. We have met a lot of great people and feel very lucky to have the opportunity to really do something here and to grow creatively.”